A lot of people seem to be applying for or renewing their passports at the moment, and there’s often a line at our local post office. It must be the anticipation of the vacation season. It’s good to have a passport, because now you can scarcely go anywhere without one. Even Canada and Bahamas are included in the list of untrustworthy foreign places. Yet Canada and Bahamas aren’t “abroad”: Canada is just the fringe of North America that George Washington abandoned to the British because it was too cold to be worth arguing about, and the Bahamas are just disconnected chunks of Florida. Sooner or later we’ll need a passport to travel to Kansas, or even to the next town as used to be the rule in old Soviet Russia. It’s all justified in the name of “security.”
It’s really all in the name of territoriality, of course, one of the most basic human and animal instincts. Every little nation must have its passport, every independence movement wants one. Street gangs would issue passports if they could. A passport says: this is our territory – we can let in, or keep you out. A 1948 film, “Passport to Pimlico,” made glorious fun of this human weakness. In the film a small district of London declares independence from the rest of the country and becomes, briefly, a paradise for shoppers, smugglers, and tax evaders. Tiny nations like Monte Carlo and Luxembourg do it in real life.
Over the years passports have acquired more and more elaborate security features as governments have become more and more paranoid. These clever technical devices are supposed to guarantee that we are who we pretend to be, but they don’t make me feel any more secure. Passports are forged, sold and stolen wholesale, and any serious international bad guy has half a dozen of them. In fact it makes me wonder why we have passports at all, along with visas, work permits, and all the paraphernalia of state bureaucracy and authoritarianism.
Security is mostly in the mind, and I suppose passports act as a kind of magic shield, like the Harry Potter spell Cave Inimicum, that will keep us safe from all the many things we fear, especially other people. Magical thinking rarely works. In terms of survival, we would do much better to stop driving, eat more vegetables and give up smoking and drinking. This would save close to a million lives a year. No amount of border security could do that, and even the busiest terrorist would find it hard to match those figures. Passports are an imaginary solution to a remote and largely imaginary problem.
Passports do have a value as souvenirs of travel, little packages of nostalgia. Receiving my first passport when I was a teenager encouraged me to get moving and cross as many frontiers as I could, if only to collect the stamps and visas. My latest passport just arrived. I’m lucky to have it, and happy to see it. It’s a kind of ticket to freedom in our bureaucratic world. Now I can keep moving until 2027, if spared, by which time I should have traveled to every place I want to go. Then, perhaps, I’ll stay safe at home.
Copyright: David Bouchier